Ann Young Hogarth was the first of three passengers to be killed when a runaway tram careered down a steep section of Auckland's New North Rd and crashed into another tram on Christmas Eve 115 years ago.

The 23-year-old dressmaker from Mt Eden was seated in the open upper deck of double-decker electric tram No 39 with her cousin William Hewlett.

As the out-of-control tram gathered speed, the heavy steel pole conveying electricity - now facing in the wrong direction - bounced free of the overhead wire. Flailing about, it caught on stays and bent, before smashing into the side of Hogarth's head, killing her instantly.

The wrecked tram cars after their collision, double-decker on the left. Photo / NZ Graphic, Auckland Libraries
The wrecked tram cars after their collision, double-decker on the left. Photo / NZ Graphic, Auckland Libraries

Today, heritage tram driver and driver examiner James Duncan describes the 1903 Kingsland tram tragedy as the worst accident in the more than 50 years that the electric tram network served Auckland.

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"[It] rocked the nation in much the same way as the Tangiwai rail disaster of Christmas Eve 1953 and the Erebus disaster of 1979."

Near full with passengers heading into the city on for last-minute Christmas shopping, tram No 39 had left Kingsland - the end of the line that in later years would reach Avondale - soon after 8pm.

The site where the two trams collided on New North Rd, Kingsland, between George and King Sts. Photo / NZ Graphic, Auckland Libraries
The site where the two trams collided on New North Rd, Kingsland, between George and King Sts. Photo / NZ Graphic, Auckland Libraries

Much of the Auckland electric tram service, which had begun operating just over a year earlier was single track.

No 39 pulled into a short section of double track near Charlotte St, Eden Terrace, about 350m from the top of the hill at Symonds St, to let an out-bound tram pass.

The driver, Fred Humphrey, had hauled on the hand-brakes but they didn't work. He tried to drive forwards again but a switch blew. He raced through to the back of the tram to try another set of brakes but they didn't work either.

Rolling slowly backwards at first, the tram accelerated to what witnesses said was a terrific speed that was later estimated at between 50 and 60km/h.

The runaway raced along the then-flatter section past what later became Dominion Rd and is now an underpass. The electrical pole came off the wire and the tram was left in near darkness, lit only by oil lamps.

Mr E Drum, of Kingsland, was standing on No 39's rear platform; his wife and three children were seated inside. He considered hopping off when the backwards roll had just begun, but stayed on to be able to help his family.

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When the main lights went out, "the women and children commenced shrieking and crying out", Drum told a Herald reporter.

"A moment later, as we turned the bend by the George St corner, I saw the headlight of an oncoming [tram] car from Kingsland, and at once recognised that my only chance of an escape from certain death was to jump."

"I did so when within a few yards of the car, and fell heavily to the ground, striking my head and losing consciousness for some little time. I was badly cut about the head, and sustained some very nasty bruises, but though suffering from shock am going on all right."

His wife suffered bruises "and the little ones fared no worse".

The driver of the second tram, No 32, had seen what was happening and tried to put his car in reverse, but it was too late.

The two smashed together and No 32 telescoped a quarter of the way through the double-decker. Two people were pinned in the middle. Men at the scene tried unsuccessfully to pull the mangled cars apart.

A third tram arrived after 10 minutes and using a rope it managed to separate the wrecked cars.

One of those who had been pinned, 73-year-old gardener Benjamin Lindsay, of Kingsland, was killed. The third fatality was accountant William Caley, 49. Up to 60 people were injured.


Auckland Weekly News report, photo and drawing, following the 1903 Kingsland tram crash

The London-owned tram company said the driver had lost his "presence of mind".

Duncan says evidence at the inquest showed the driver lacked the knowledge needed to stop the tram by using an emergency braking system. The tram company subsequently organised special training sessions for its drivers on how to use the system.

The trams had ratchet-operated hand-brakes; a screw-operated brake that pressed a block onto the rails; and the emergency system, which could operate even without an electricity supply.

The latter worked by the driver using the control switches to convert the motor at one end to a generator which fed electricity into the other motor; that second motor was energised in the opposite direction to the tram's movement.

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Duncan says if the emergency brakes had been used properly, No 39 would have safely jolted, stopping and starting, down in the incline and halted on the flat.

The tram company did not adopt the inquest jury's recommendation that, because of Auckland's steep hills, the use of double-deckers cease. In the 1920s, however, the doubles were converted to single-deckers.

Duncan says Auckland's tragic experience informed the design of double-deckers elsewhere.

Wellington's were fitted with a higher edge-railing on the top deck and the pole was longer so if it swung about it would hit the rail, not passengers. In Christchurch, a hoop was mounted at each end for protection from a flailing pole.

In 2016, a commemorative plaque was placed at the corner of King St and New North Rd, which was thought to be the site of the crash.

Duncan says later research indicated the site was about 70m northeast and the plaque had been moved there, in front of, ironically, a business that specialises in brakes.